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In his review of Our Mutual Friend (1864–5), Henry James claimed the novel showed signs of its author’s ‘exhaustion’. In this chapter, Garrett Stewart shows, by way of contrast and rebuttal, the exhaustive catalogue of stylistic effects that Dickens energetically employs in his last complete novel. The chapter individuates distinct features of style from Dickens’s long-standing repertoire – including the dextrous use of adjectives and negatives, ingenuity of syntax and inversion, sound and word play, renovation of idiom and cliché – to show Dickens flaunting and holding up to inspection his own characteristic verbal and phrasal habits.
The chapter on words shows that even when mimicking worn-out, hackneyed speech styles, the vitality of creative language use can rescue wording from those atmospheres – of marketing and of politicking, for example – where language has become tired and predictable. The chapter considers the play of chance in any formation of wording, as the unruliness of graphemes and phonemes contributes over and above semantics. It shows that words are activated by syntax as they pass into phrases and that style emerges from the unpredictable influence of their scriptive, acoustic and etymological properties.
Under the coinage “bibliographics,” this chapter follows the planar space of represented word shapes from the Renaissance painting of open bibles through Conceptual art objects printed in time-sensitive disappearing ink. The displacement from page etching to the ambient space of reading, a feature of representational painting in its figurative mental landscapes, also makes its appearance in contemporary installation work in which page shapes are reflected by reading lamps onto the walls of a self-performed “reading room.” The long arc of the chapter runs from saintly reading of the bible “in an extensive landscape” (where the divinely sanctioned world extends and refigures the divine Word) through an “augmented reality” e-text operated from digitally encrypted markers “read” by webcam from the pages of a typical bound volume.
Between the last chapter and this, silence changes its sign. Compared to the ludicrous reading in of significance to the visual filler of screen text is the normal reading out of sound from visual signs. Clarified by audio theorist Michel Chion are the different time frames of cinematic montage and alphabetic signage on screen. Pursuing the theme of temporality and writing, a literary-critical debate between Michael Riffaterre and Paul de Man over a poem by Victor Hugo turns on the poem’s lack of book or page for its text/medium interface – with indirect consequences for its phonetic substrate as well. From there, discussion moves to a famous auditory passage in Virginia Woolf and to a debate in media and film theory that returns to Chion in explicating the difference between the filmic photogram and a linguistic “phonogram,” the latter on exhibit in such novelists as Tom McCarthy and Don DeLillo.
Rounding out the previous chapter’s treatment of Victorian narrative with the early modernist prose of Henry James, analysis returns to the ontology of language in Agamben, leading on to a more philologically oriented history of prose – pivoted on the Enlightenment rise of the “plain style” – in research by John Guillory. Such is a mode of discourse whose potential stranglehold on future developments in literary writing is contrasted with a recovered premium on the densities of rhythm and sonority. Literary examples extend from Whitman’s insurgent lexical poetics, through D. H. Lawrence’s grammatically impacted style, to the stripped-down phrasal ironies of Kazuo Ishiguro – before returning to Friedrich Kittler on the ideologies of speech as medium in the post-Enlightenment century. Discussion closes with an adapted Heideggerian model for the present-at-handness of language itself in medial disclosure – rather than just in scriptive use.
In this first of paired chapters bearing down on the evolutionary history and philosophy of literary language, Victorian narratives differently concerned with the term “medium” – George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – undergo an intensive reading that opens directly onto Giorgio Agamben’s investigations into the always mysterious ontological conjuncture of idea and its sayability, object and its name, in human discourse – and since then onto conceptual poet John Cayley’s theory of “grammalepsy.” Literary examples of prose under duress, from Herman Melville to D. H. Lawrence, return reading to a more close-grained application of Agamben’s poetics (rather than ontology), where the “give” – and take back – of a medium’s oscillatory potential can only be played out before us, tacitly at least, in a foundational contrast to the logic (following Agamben) of the non-extensive point in calculus, the signifying unit that has, unlike syllabic language, no subsidiary elements.
Beginning with the digitally printed formats of experimental fiction, emphasis turns to the inner grain of literary reading, as foregrounded by the irregular digital Font by conceptual text artist Fiona Banner. Such a graphic experiment is brought into comparison with the ridged texture of our ordinary literary response to the contours of subvocally deciphered script. Parallels emerge with the ironic calligraphy and effacing inkwork of contemporary Chinese artists, in a dissident vein, as well as with the work of American new media poet and theorist John Cayley, whose installation practice takes him beyond the limits of aesthetic literacy to phonorobotics and “aurature” (vs. literature). Discussion moves then to a satiric text by Bennett Sims about an academic anti-hero who furiously over-reads the lip movements of non-speaking parts in a Hitchcock film, thereby travestying the silent signifiers – the “visemes” in their operation as phonemes – of an actual textual page.
This chapter revolves around a retrospective tour of recent book arts expositions where the material vehicle – the physical platform – of codex objects gets appropriated, reworked, simulated, or digitally remade in various combinations of analytic and figurative rigor in the bibliobjet: first the “Odd Volumes” curation at Yale in 2014–15, then “The Internal Machine” show at the Center for Books Arts in Manhattan in 2017. Exhibits range from a pre-Kindle irony of electronically activated video “reading,” through books as sounding boards for acoustic synthesizers, to a sonnet anthology accessed only by an embedded microphone. In such exaggerated “platformatics,” repeatedly the interplay between sound and text is displaced from the normal subvocal enunciation of written script – as is more recently the case in a “volume” of spectrogram rather than script lines, transferred from digital audio, that goes out of its way to correlate the prehistory of binary computing with its vestigial codex form.
Overview is inseparable from its retrospective dimension in any look back on the evolution of the codex under shifting technical conditions, from moveable type to pixel backlight. A “cross-sectional” approach to the book/text/medium triad involves chapters arranged here in three respective pairs. First (Part I): the plastic art of the codex, divided between the graphics of easel treatment and conceptual book sculpture. Next (Part II): in close comparison with such material form, an intensive reading of phonemic wording – in its mediating linguistic texture – thrown into relief by visual rather than verbal “signage” in narrative cinema as an alternative time-based medium. Finally (Part III): the ontology of human speech pursued, over against its media ideology, by contemporary theorists Giorgio Agamben and Friedrich Kittler. The introduction also looks back on the “speakwrite” in George Orwell’s 1984 as a mode of dictation contrasted with the transgressive sensuality of handwriting on outmoded paper pages early in the novel.
Mine in closure, these parting words, looking back on many a word parted and regrouped in textual passages behind us: words annexed or merely wrenched wide by the next in line, all as allowed – as if aloud – in that medium of reading known as language. Given the “sustained conjunction of book studies, textual studies, and media studies” promised at the start, what has actually been sustained in this alignment (as initially rephrased) of “book history, verbal analysis, and media theory”? Sustained – and amplified. How and where have the tactilities of the codex under the estimate of Conceptual art, on the one hand, and the abstractions of language philosophy as media theory, on the other, converged to energize a more tangible sense of the linguistic text?